Tough Guy

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Proverbs 31:10-31 OR Wisdom 2:12-22
Psalm 1
James 3:16-4:3
Mark 9:30-37

Over the recent Labor Day weekend, one of the movie channels was showing a Rocky marathon, so I took the opportunity to introduce my kids to a movie that, in my mind, once represented the apex of filmmaking—Rocky III. While it’s always fun to revisit a cultural experience from my childhood, in this case we found ourselves laughing at all the wrong moments.

Particularly confounding to my kids was the character of Clubber Lang, played by Mr. T. For those of you who don’t remember Mr. T, he was a grumpy, mohawked celebrity in the early 1980’s, the star of television shows, cartoons, and numerous commercials. He even had a breakfast cereal named after him.

And as his appearance in Rocky III reminded me, his persona could be boiled down to one basic characteristic: he was a tough guy. In the movie, his dramatic range extends from macho posturing to aggressive verbal abuse, all delivered in a gravelly, staccato cadence. My two kids, who are around the age I was when Mr. T dominated the airwaves, had a hard time understanding why I—and millions of other red-blooded American children—had once thought that he was so cool.

Of course, if such characters were only found in fiction, this world would be a much safer place. As we enter another presidential campaign, and another glut of debates, Super PAC commercials, and stump speeches hit the airwaves, I’m reminded that Mr. T’s hair and wardrobe may have been mercifully left in the 1980’s, but his affectations have never gone out of style.

As each candidate tries to convince the American public that he or she is the most worthy contender to the highest office in the land, there is a lot of talk about being tough. We need to be tough on crime. We’ve got to get tough on illegal immigration. The next president had better be tough with ISIS. We have to be tough on Iran. More than any other quality, it seems that in the eyes of potential voters a leader has to possess toughness. If you’re not willing to speak hard truth against our enemies, and to back it up with unflinching action, don’t bother applying for the job.

Because we live in a culture that values toughness in so many arenas, from the campaign trail to the football field to the schoolyard, the words of scripture found in this week’s lectionary passages can pose a bit of a challenge. Here, we encounter not an encomium to aggression, hardness, intimidation, or any of the other marks of toughness.

Instead, we find the authors of these passages reflecting on a virtue that gets far less attention in our society—gentleness. It’s not difficult to see why gentleness is sometimes overlooked as a trait worth possessing. In a world where only the strong survive, it stands to reason that those who are gentle are going to get eaten for lunch. In contrast to such modern pragmatism, however, the wisdom tradition in the Hebrew scriptures points to gentleness as a quality bound up with a strong and capable righteousness.

So the book of Proverbs closes with a tribute to a woman whose every action brings goodness and light into her world. This is not a person who pushes others around in order to get her way. Her unassuming diligence and quiet dignity are matched by her generosity to the poor and her kindness of speech. She is capable and strong not in spite of her gentle and peaceable approach to her life and work, but because of it.

Psalm 1, likewise, depicts a man whose demeanor and bearing, and most importantly his commitment to meditate on God’s law, set him in opposition to those whom the text calls “sinners,” “wicked,” and most vividly, “scoffers.” Such images bring to mind the arrogance of playground bullies, using tough talk to intimidate the weak. They cling to the conviction that the world is theirs for the taking, if they just assert themselves and step on anyone who gets in their way.

But the Psalmist has a different vision of how things will turn out. It is the righteous, meditative follower of God, not the scoffers, who will stand strong. While the wicked will fold at the first sign of trouble, the person who delights in God’s law will stand firmly rooted, like a tree planted beside the waters.

When we turn to the New Testament, we find the author of the Epistle of James taking up this theme of a wisdom that succeeds not in spite of gentleness, but because of it. James urges his readers to reject the bitterness, envy, and selfish ambition that so often characterize the usual way of doing business in this world. These things are not wisdom at all, he says, but are “earthly, unspiritual, and devilish.” When we jockey for position and compete to fulfill our desires, this leads to every kind of disorder and wickedness, in our communities and in our own hearts.

Instead, James says that the fruits of those who are truly wise and understanding will be borne in the gentleness that comes from wisdom—fruits like peace, flexibility, and mercy. These are the virtues we should embrace, and those who demonstrate such things are worthy of our attention.

Of course, such teachings should be familiar to anyone who has encountered the example of Jesus in the gospels. Mark narrates a conversation that Jesus had with his disciples on the matter of who was the greatest among them. He speaks to them about servanthood and humility, about putting the needs of others before our own.

Finally, as if to sum up what it looks like to be the greatest in God’s kingdom, he takes a little child in his arms and urges his disciples to show hospitality to ones such as these. The greatest in God’s kingdom will welcome children. The greatest in God’s kingdom will show kindness to the vulnerable.

In recent years certain segments of the church, motivated by what they call the “Feminization of Christianity,” have de-emphasized such scenes. Embarrassed by the meek and lowly Jesus of Sunday School flannelgraph boards, they have tried to present Jesus as “one of the guys,” a dude who would much rather be yelling at Pharisees and turning over tables in the temple than holding a child in his arms.

But something profoundly important—something that I would argue is crucial to the integrity of the gospel–is lost when we neglect Jesus’ teachings on quiet humility, or ignore his acts of gentleness. Like the woman in Proverbs 31, the righteous person of Psalm 1, and the faithful servant of James 3, Jesus was powerful not in spite of his gentleness but because of it. Anyone who thinks that the way of gentleness is easy, a cop-out for those who can’t cut it in a dog-eat-dog world, has probably never made a serious attempt to walk that path.

Indeed, as the passages in the Wisdom of Solomon and Jeremiah make plain, those who are gentle will face persecution. In a world full of would-be tough guys, they might be seen as easy targets. Like Jesus, those who are committed to the way of peace might suffer at the hands of those who use violence and intimidation to rule the world.

But God’s promises are sure. God will stand with those who suffer in this way. God will vindicate those who choose the hard road of gentle wisdom. God’s victory over sin and darkness and death was achieved not through the tough guys of the world, the Pilates and Caesars and Herods who used combative rhetoric and aggressive posturing to maintain their authority, but through a gentle lamb, led to the slaughter, so that God’s power is revealed not in spite of the gentleness of God’s servant, but because of it.

One Response to “Tough Guy”

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  1. Joel Shuman says:

    What a great essay. Among the many ironies (or are they absurdities?) attending our world is that nearly all who advocate the intensified projection of economic, legal, social, and military violence against real or imagined enemies also advocate a society more thoroughly determined by “Christian values.” Thank you for calling attention to the gentle character of the One we endeavor, however imperfectly, to serve.

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